In Donald Trump’s closing argument of the midterm elections – an attack on birthright citizenship – he has again targeted the children of migrants.
I say “again” because it is something of a theme. There was the use of family separation as a punishment for illegal immigration – effectively using the traumatization of children as a tool of deterrence. There was the transfer of migrant children under cover of darkness to a tent city in the Texas desert, where the inmates have described cold, hunger and fear.
This time, Trump warns of an invasion of America from the womb. The erection of a wall is more complicated in this case. So the president has announced that he is contemplating an executive order that would reinterpret the 14th Amendment to make the citizenship of children born in America dependent on the legality of their parents, or something.
“We’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States for 85 years, with all those benefits,” Trump has said. “It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. And it has to end.”
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Corrections: The United States is one of dozens of countries with birthright citizenship. And a child born in America is not “essentially” a citizen. He or she is completely equal in legal value and standing with the president of the United States or any other swaggering fool who imagines that he comes from superior stock.
This clearly peeves Trump. Good. It was intended to. The Radical Republicans who authored the 14th Amendment following the Civil War wanted to end the Confederate view of citizenship – which was contingent on color – finally and forever. The 14th Amendment was intended to be a stake in the heart of bloodline citizenship, which is precisely what Trump hopes to revive. At the time of the amendment’s passage, some members of Congress expressed the fear that birthright citizenship would turn gypsy, Chinese and other (in their view) undesirable children into citizens. Sen. John Conness of California responded: “We are entirely ready to accept the provision proposed in this constitutional amendment, that the children born here of Mongolian parents shall be declared by the Constitution of the United States to be entitled to civil rights and equal protection before the law with others.”
The Radical Republicans were quite radical in their determination to prevent some future president and congressional majority from denying the rights of children of any background, as long as they were born in America. Trump and his allies are also radical in their determination to turn the brown children of illegal immigrants into criminals on the day of their birth.
This is not the equivalent of an argument about the feasibility of a continent-wide wall, which is a contest between wisdom and stupidity. The debate between bloodline and birthright citizenship is a measure of how you view and value a crying child in a crib in some Texas hospital, born to parents without papers. You can regard that baby, as Trump does, as illegitimate and unwelcome – as another “illegal” of the wrong pedigree and the wrong color who will be a drain on national resources.
Or you can view a child born in America as a potential worker, a potential innovator or professional, a potential church member and volunteer, a potential father or mother, a potential taxpayer, a potential voter, a potential president. And as a full and equal citizen. According to the Constitution.
Any political movement that regards the plain meaning of the 14th Amendment as an obstacle to its political intentions has earned a great deal of suspicion. Any political movement that views vindictive cruelty against children as a crowd-pleasing political appeal has earned public contempt. Any political party that embraces this agenda of exclusion deserves defeat.
This issue shows what is at stake in the midterm election. No one, on either ideological side, will regard the outcome as a referendum on the state of the economy or the direction of regulatory reform. Trump has nationalized the election as a plebiscite on his approach to politics, including the invention of threats and venomous dehumanization of migrants. And he has culminated and summarized his appeal with a plan to undermine the 14th Amendment and deny citizenship to brown children.
If the Republican Party holds the House and Senate, Trump will take this as the endorsement of a politics founded on racial and ethnic hatred. As it would be. As we can’t allow it to be.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.